The Royal Court of France
The royal court was a large community of people. There were the monarch’s camarilla and retinue, household servants, nobility and clergy with court appointments.
Heir presumptive, or tres haut et tres puissant Prince, was the King’s younger brother and would inherit the throne should the King die without children. Having a role at the Court was important and came with a duty.
As King Louis was God’s representative on earth, he exercised supreme power. He took the oath of loyalty to the Catholic faith at his coronation. This commitment led him to crack down on Jansenist dissent and crack down even harder on Protestants after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
He also maintained an extensive music programme at court. He launched a series of competitions to find new talent. He patronised musicians such as André Charles Boulle, who revolutionised marquetry and brought it to a wider audience. He had the King’s orchestra play every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday for ‘grande musique’, and they went with him on his frequent travels to Fontainebleau. He was surrounded by his family. In 1778 Marie Antoinette gave birth to a son, the future Dauphin Louis, and this eased the pressure on him. This did not stop her from trying to shore up the monarchy with secret talks with leaders of constitutional monarchists in the Constituent Assembly such as Antoine Barnave and Theodore and Alexandre de Lameth.
As a woman she was less involved in the daily activities of the court than her husband. But she did revive music at court and a daily hour-long concert was held in her inner chambers at Versailles or Fontainebleau. She also established an educational programme for her children.
She was a good mother and her affection for her children helped to sustain the royal family through its later catastrophes. However, her inability to produce a male heir in the 1770s inspired rivals (including members of her own family) to circulate slanderous stories about her private life and alleged extra-marital relationships. These tarnished her reputation and were exacerbated in 1785 by the infamous Diamond Necklace Affair.
She began secret negotiations with the leaders of the constitutional monarchists in the Constituent Assembly – Antoine Barnave and the Lameth brothers – in an attempt to shore up support for the crown. When they failed she turned to emigres and other royalists outside France, including the Count de Mirabeau, who had organised her family’s flight to Montmedy.
The King’s court was the heart of the nation but a maze of bureaucracies and daily rituals weighed heavily upon its ability to develop national policy and affect the people. It was a time when rank meant everything; precedence, privileges and the hope of further advancement all came from one source: the King.
It was a time of great passion for music and Versailles is perhaps the most famous royal residence in Europe to be associated with a love for instrumental music. Aristocrats and nobles would gather at the Palace of Versailles to hear the latest composition or witness a performance.
A well-trained courtier was a uomo universale, a man of good character, well educated, civilized and elegant; able to debate important issues, to fight in duels and to dance. He could also be a diplomat and even a military commander.
Under Louis XIV the responsibilities and duties of the Audience had become more clearly defined. It was a team of servants and officials who were responsible for presenting orders for signature or letters requiring a response to the king and to handling other administrative affairs of state.
Aside from these official functions the court also organised daily entertainment and official spectacles and ceremonies. This was a time when the sartorial appearance and finery of those who attended the court was a major way in which nobility won royal favour.
Marie-Antoinette revived this tradition of music and, as a pianist and vocalist herself, promoted concerts (‘les concerts de la reine’) and a programme of theatre and opera productions in her private apartments. She also introduced her children to these artistic interests. However she was not a purist and her desire to please her audience and to keep up with fashionable culture tended to produce a somewhat drab result.